How to Textify Your Emails

Emails are nice to have around, but don’t you sometimes wish you could get them out of your Inbox and into your note-taking program of choice? If you could, then all you’d need is a single search to find anything.


Why Plain Text?

Plain text files have several benefits, and using text files in applications like Evernote can improve your experience as well. At the moment, several years of emails, all of my notes, and all of my textified PDFs take up less than two gigabytes on my local drive, even though the original files amount to several hundred gigabytes.


Let’s assume you are using Thunderbird for your email, because if you are not, I can’t help you!

  • In Thunderbird, go to Tools > Add-ons and in the search field type “import export.” Choose “ImportExportTools,” wait for it to download, and then restart Thunderbird.
  • Go to your Inbox, tap on an email to highlight it in blue, press Command + a to select all of your emails, right-click (a two-finger tap in Lion and Mountain Lion), and select “Save selected messages” > “Plain text format.” Pick a spot to save them, and you are done!

Now, you can import these text files into nvALT, VoodooPad, Evernote, or any other application of your choice.

Personally, I like to keep files off of my local drive, so I export my emails to an external drive every few weeks or so as .eml (email format), .html with attachments (web format), and Plain text with attachments. Then, I delete everything from Thunderbird so that I’ve got Merlin Mann’sInbox Zero.”

The reason I save these in three formats is that I want to be sure that nothing gets lost. Ten or twenty years down the line, .eml might not be widely supported, but .html is more likely to be, and plain text is almost certain to be around for my lifetime at least. Of course, if you ever change your mind and want to get everything back into your email client, just import those .eml files and it will be just like they had never left.

Japanese Language Emails

I’m afraid I’ve got bad news. Thunderbird doesn’t handle Japanese very well. I think the problem is that many times we send emails with multiple encodings: the subject field has a separate encoding from the body, and it looks to me like Thunderbird and other apps can only recognize one or the other. Something is bound to end up as mojibake.

At this point, I have only been able to find one clumsy workaround. If you use DevonThink, you can import the .eml files (these are email files that haven’t been converted yet) into it, and then export the files as text. For some reason, DevonThink gets it right. However, there is a catch. DevonThink will only export one text file, so you either do one email at a time, or you select them all and export them into a single text file.

If you know of a better way to get Japanese emails out of your Inbox and into plain text format, please let me know!

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